Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterson, Colin Farell
Director: David Yates
It’s been five years since Harry Potter handed over his wand, and Warner Bros is yet to find a franchise as globally successful and satisfying. The studio’s repeated attempts to create a Marvel-like cinematic universe for its DC Comics superheroes has been bumpy at best, so it’s hardly surprising that they went right back to JK Rowling to squeeze out some more magic from the Potterverse.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them evokes the same childlike awe and wonder that powered the Harry Potter films. This adventure, named after a classic Hogwarts textbook, is set in 1920s America, and while there’s no sign of Harry, Ron and Hermione, and no dazzling Quidditch matches to take one’s breath away, there is still a lot to enjoy here.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a shy wizard and writer who’s traveled the world rescuing and collecting a menagerie of enchanted creatures of every size, shape and personality. Soon after he arrives in New York, his suitcase comes into the possession of a down-on-his-luck baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who accidentally releases the critters into the city.
Newt tries to retrieve these ‘fantastic beasts’ with help from the hapless baker, a kind but tightly wound witch-cop named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Alas this chaos couldn’t have come at a worse time. Tension between the wizarding folk and the No-Maj population (or the muggles, as we know them) is mounting as a result of the increasing number of violent incidents in the city. Could these be Newt’s magical animals wreaking havoc, or the work of a dark wizard rumored to be on the loose?
Frankly it’s a lot to take in and some of it feels rushed through. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films, maintains a nice whimsical tone, but you can’t help wishing he’d let you spend more time in the company of such creatures as the duck-billed Niffler who has a weakness for bling; the Bowtruckle, a cross between a grasshopper and a twig; and the rhino-esque Erumpent who has a killer sense of smell.
Also, as endearing as Redmayne is in the role of the film’s accident-prone protagonist, he can’t evoke the instant affection you developed for the kids in the Potter films. The villains too – chief among them Colin Farrell as the head of security at the American Ministry of Magic – are stock cinematic baddies.
But now I’m nitpicking. Fantastic Beasts is thrilling in portions, gorgeously mounted, and teeming with imagination. Rowling, who has the written the screenplay herself, creates a fully realized world of wizardry and wonder that still somehow succeeds in looking and feeling different from the Potter world.
Unlike the early Potter adventures, Fantastic Beasts, the first film in an intended five-part series, is darker, and more suited for older viewers who can grasp the film’s themes of segregation and xenophobia. A subplot involving a religious crazy (Samantha Morton) who mistreats kids and hunts witches might be especially disturbing for young kids.
Of the cast, Redmayne hits all the right notes between awkward and heroic, but it’s Fogler as wide-eyed No-Maj Kowalski, who practically steals the film. Despite a flabby middle portion that tends to drag, this is a charming film, one that I very much enjoyed.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Yes, a franchise is born.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
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